Realistic fiction and a dollop of magical realism.
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Essays on various literary topics.
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Stories to frighten children have been around for centuries. From fairy tales to myths of monsters and things that go bump in the night, mankind has always chosen to scare itself. There is something intrinsically powerful about fear, something which has led some modern writers to call fear the most powerful of emotions.
Interestingly, horrific elements do not commonly appear in modern poetry. There is a "library" of archetypal figures that are commonly employed in horror both ancient and modern, and these are mostly absent from verse. It is not often that one sees a vampire in a sonnet by Shakespeare, nor indeed a werewolf in Allen Ginsberg's work. Despite these omissions, poets like Ginsberg and Shakespeare and certainly Edgar Allan Poe, make use of many of the tropes of what we today call the horror genre in order to depict their worlds. Among contemporary poets, few make use of these archetypal symbols more effectively and consciously than Ted Hughes.
Hughes' use of elements common in horror fiction makes him unique among contemporary poets, and the inheritor of a tradition ranging back to Poe and Mary Shelley. Although many have remarked on his use of mythical elements, it seems clear that Hughes is responding to the same cultural elements which restored horror to popular culture with such force in the twentieth century. Hughes' brand of horror is more in the tradition of Poe than of Henry James and "The Turn of the Screw" in that it relies on elements such as the grotesque, monsters, shock value, and other such crudely emotional techniques. The reasons for the use of such an approach may perhaps be found in the traditional uses of these methods.
The grotesque has long served as a method of frightening society away from the taboo. One thinks immediately of the use of gargoyles and horrific images of Hell in the greatest cathedrals of the High Gothic style. The purpose is to frighten the viewer into faith, or at least into good behavior. Similarly, fairy tales, with their gaggle of witches and talking animals, commonly served as a method of scaring children and indeed adults into a certain set of behaviors. It is a well-known fact that in the original version of "Little Red Riding Hood" the little girl does not survive her enoucnter with the wolf, and no lumberjack saves her. Here are elements of horror serving to set signposts about the taboo: the deep forest, sin, and so on. Punishment for certain behaviors is presented in supernatural terms and in graphic detail, "the better to scare us with."
It has been argued that horror fiction is above all, a tool for preserving the status quo--that is, that horror is intrinsically a conservative genre. In his fascinating study of the genre as it existed in popular culture between 1950 and 1980, Danse Macabre, Stephen King asserts that "terror--what Hunter Thompson calls fear and loathing--often arises from a pervasive sense of disestablishment; that things are in the unmaking." He lists among the books which have been central to the contemporary definition of horror a wide range of novels and stories both popular and literary, ranging from Gabriel García Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude to Rosemary's Baby. He goes on to reach a preliminary conclusion, that "the horror tale generally details the outbreak of some Dionysian madness in an Apollonian existence... the horror will continue until the Dionysian forces have been repelled and the Apollonian norm restored again."
This view of horror's role in society seems directly applicable to the work of Ted Hughes. Hughes applies horror to what seem on the surface to be society's most stabilizing influences: religion, love, family. However, the way in which he makes use of the thematic ideas of horror is vastly different from the work of the run-of-the-mill horror genre writer. Rather than make use of the traditional horrific figures, Hughes invents his own; this does not mean, however, that he goes far beyond the traditional meanings of these figures. In a sense, Hughes discards the trappings, but does not break truly new ground in his use of the figures of the vampire, the werewolf, and so on. As Keith Sagar says of him, "Few of his ideas are original. He takes what he can from diverse sources. (The same could be said of Shakespeare, Donne, Eliot, Beckett...)" When dealing with archetypes such as these, there is no shame in borrowing, which may in fact serve as a vindication of sorts for the popular novelists like King who choose to work in this genre despite having graduate degrees and adequate writing ability.
In the horror films of the 1950's traditional horror figures such as the werewolf and the vampire were used as tropes representing such socially repressed desires as sexuality and eccentricity. The usefulness of this is immediately apparent; of course, this technique of abstracting a vice into an archetypal figure is hardly new. For instance, the figure of the werewolf may be taken to represent involuntary physicality or sexuality, the force of the body overwhelming the Apollonian social codes imposed on it. A more literal depiction of animalism and sheer animal sexuality can hardly be imagined.
Hughes makes use of this idea, if not of the literal symbolic werewolf. In Hughes' work, the Dionysian is always at the point of bursting forth from us, to transform us terribly:
Temple-dancers, possessed, and steered
By solemn powers
Through insane, stately convulsions.
Of dove-lust and blood splendour
And plungings, and spray-slow explosions...
-- from "A Dove"
Leonard Scigai says that Hughes "finds the serenity of Zen preferable to a culture wherein repressed libido periodically erupts into mass violence..." This perfectly follows the traditional horror pattern for the werewolf figure, the archetype of Dionysian sexuality bursting free of societal restrictions. It also reinforces the view of horror elements, even in Hughes, as being essentially conservative.
From the recognition of such forces within ourselves it is but a step to fear of those forces in others. Particularly in the form of a sexual figure who is so preternaturally powerful that we cannot help but be seduced by him, and eventually destroyed by him as we become as he is. The idea manifests itself countless times in literature, but it was not until Stoker codified it in Dracula that it became larger than life, a supernatural force. One may take the Don Juan figure as a simpler version of the vampire: a seducer who steals innocence away, perhaps to turn it into another seducer.
The vampire, or predatory sexual figure, certainly has its parallels in Hughes' work, most notably in "Lovesong." Sexuality is depicted as a predatory act, where "she bit him she gnawed she sucked" seems more than literal. In this poem there are two vampires, the two lovers, and their desire for possession of each other's bodies ends with the same sort of transformation that countless vampire tales do, in that they assume control over each other totally, physically. As Hughes puts it, "In the morning they wore each other's face."
And their deep cries crawled over the floors
Like an animal dragging a great trap
His promises were the surgeon's gag
Her promises took off the top of his skull
She would get a brooch made of it
His vows pulled out all his sinews
He showed her how to make a love-knot
Her vows put his eyes in formalin
At the back of her secret drawer
Their screams stuck to the wall
Their heads fell apart into sleep like the two halves
Of a lopped melon, but love is hard to stop
In their entwined sleep they exchanged arms and legs
In their dreams their brains took each other hostage
-- from "Lovesong"
We cannot help but notice how animalistic this is, and how savagely destructive of the conventions of society. Marriage vows are seen as mere extensions of vampiric love, and orgasm itself is a "great trap" that has entrapped them with Dionysian lures. The ultimate penalty is paid, of course: to lose identity, perhaps the greatest horror of all, particularly in an Apollonian setting.
Yet this sort of predatory love is not only found between two "vampire" figures. Take the uncollected "The Lamentable History of the Human Calf," where the vampire is abstracted out into the form of a little puppy the maiden has by her side.
'O give me your eyes, your rolling eyes,
That splash me with their tears, that go roving after others.
And give me your brains, that give you such pains
With doubting of my love, with doubting of my love.
And give me your arms, that all night long when you're far from
my side they'll clasp me, clasp me,'
And she cried, 'I'll be your bride!'
So I tore out my eyes and I gouged out my brains and I sawed off my
arms and I gave them to my darling
And she fed them to her puppy.
--from "The Lamentable History of the Human Calf"
The demands of love are made grotesque and unreasonable by making them physical acts; by the end of the poem the suitor is nothing but a bodiless soul, and is left with nothing but the dog grown up into "an old sour bitch." He has literally and metaphorically been consumed by the vampire, appearing in the form of a lovely young maiden, as she does in so many folk tales.
The central horror concept behind Frankenstein, that of the creations of humanity grown beyond its control, may not seem to apply directly to any of Hughes' poems--until we read recent poems such as "The Black Rhino" where industry has come to overwhelm us. In "Telegraph Wires" our creations serve as eerie, incomplete reflections of ourselves, like poor Frankenstein's monster or indeed any other manifestations of the figure, such as the evil computer minds that haunt so many a low-budget science-fiction film. "Such unearthly airs/ The ear hears, and withers!/ ...a bright face/ Draws out of telegraph wires the tones/ That empty human bones," Hughes writes. We are undone precisely by our inability to create anything quite like us, and thereby the taboo against technological creation is established.
When we do find technology described in Hughes' work, it is likely to be described in terms like these:
Worse iron is waiting. Power-lift kneels,
Levers awake imprisoned deadweight,
Shackle pins bedded in cast-iron cow shit.
The blind a vibrating condemned obedience
Of iron to the cruelty of iron,
Wheels screeched out of their night locks--
-- from "Tractor"
This ominous vision of the tractor as a being that has grown beyond man's power to control it, which traps its operator in "a trap of iron stupidity," that comes alive "shuddering itself full of heat, seeming to enlarge slowly/ Like a demon..." inevitably ends with the tractor operator's defeat. It is Frankenstein come again:
Weeping in the wind of chloroform
And the tractor, streaming with sweat,
Raging and trembling and rejoicing.
It can thus be seen that most of the archetypal figures of horror serve to reinforce not just a conservative but even a reactionary view of the world. Technology must be eliminated, lest it create a Frankenstein; the dead must stay dead, for fear of the Zombie; and we must keep our passions firmly under control and stay away from those who do not, the Vampire (externalized lust) and the Werewolf (internal animality). But the matter is not simple. No matter how well King's point about maintaining the status quo may seem to apply to the vast majority of horror elements, the fact remains that the grotesque may be applied just as well to things which are not taboo in a society. Instead, the same elements may be applied to some of our most cherished institutions, which are then made to seem frightening, thus forcing a re-evaluation of those customs. In Ted Hughes, there are two chief targets: love and religion. To a lesser extent, he also uses Nature, but often Nature seems to be the only source of that Zen calm that Scigai sees.
The greatest use of the grotesque in Hughes' work is in his poem cycle Crow, part of which was published in the book of the same title. In it, as elsewhere, sexuality in Hughes' work is often likened to eating or swallowing, and to death--both common images in work of all ages. However, his manner of presentation is clearly in a more horrific vein. A quotation from Stephen King is once more apropos. Speaking of his own work, he has said, "I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify him/her, I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out." The distinctions made by King are simple: psychological terror with no explicit gore, followed by horror, where the messiness bcomes visible, followed by sheer revulsion. The graphic nature of the grotesque is used by Hughes often--but to use King's definitions and criteria again, does Hughes always rely on the "gross-out" rather than employ the techniques of subtler horror?
The psychological elements, what King defines as "terror" and another writer on the subject, Orson Scott Card, calls "dread," manifest themselves in Hughes side by side with the grotesque at times, but perhaps more rewardingly at those times when they stand alone. One of the classic examples of "dread" is Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw," where no overtly horrific elements appear. The fear is instead in the anticipation. Hughes does this in certain poems, relying on the anticipation of a horrible event and on atmosphere to convey the dread. Hughes typically leads up to a final image which is not at all what one might expect, thus shifting the burden of fear onto something which we do not expect to bear it. For example, the poem "Emily BrontĎ" ends with the line "Her death is a baby-cry on the moor," which is a peculiar twisting of a positive image into a negative one and vice-versa, which is not at all what is expected from the earlier stanxas, full of words like "fatal," "sodden," and "stone."
Hughes' use of psychological horror are on the whole less directly effective than the grotesque images he employs elsewhere. The sheer shock value of the horror story is the reason for its longevity. It can teach us a taboo faster than any other method, guide us towards a behavioral pattern through negative reinforcement, and basically scare the bejeezus out of us until we do what we are told. For Hughes the image of eating seems to be the central horrific image, the one that tends most towards the automatic gesture of revulsion King speaks of.
In poems like "A Horrible Religious Error" images of sexuality as eating continue, and in other Crow poems even more horrific ideas are brought to bear on the issue. More of the horror archetypes appear, such as the parasite or demon which comes to control humans. In "A Childish Prank" Crow bites "the Worm, God's only son," in half, out of which he makes a penis for man; the other half is stuffed "headfirst into woman/... To peer out through her eyes/ Calling its tail-half to join up quickly, quickly..." The poem uses the common horror idea of demon or parasite possession as an analogy for that same Dionysian eruption of sexual energy, and the result is typical of the horror story:
Man awoke being dragged across the grass.
Woman awoke to see him coming.
Neither knew when had happened.
--from "A Childish Prank"
Stuart Hirschberg says of Hughes that "he is apparently caught and held through an empathy with his protagonists yet repelled by the fear of what happens to them..." This analysis, although accurate, is insufficient precisely because it does not realize with what it is dealing; Hirschberg sees the mythic connections in Hughes' work but does not consider that as a work of horror, empathy is required or else fear cannot be instilled in the reader. If the author does not care about the protagonists of his poems, then neither will the reader, and their end, however graphically horrific it may be, will serve little to advance Hughes' particular agenda. This is extremely clear in the long poem Prometheus On His Crag, where the degree of intimacy achieved with Prometheus as he is rent by the vulture is painfully intense.
Sexuality is not the only target of Hughes' horror-based social critique. Religion itself comes under attack, in an excellent example of horror elements being applied in an unusual direction. In Crow and other poems like "Theology" the rewriting of Dionysian sexuality is applied to Genesis, thus reinscribing all of Chirstianity. This is clearly not a use of horror to enforce the status quo. Religion in Hughes is portrayed as a series of dreadful accidents, with the usual horror trappings of monsters and even of disembowelment. Hughes gives Christian iconography the same treatment he gives to Classical mythology or Celtic traditions: from Prometheus to Gog to God Himself, we see the same images of a taboo mystery manifesting.
Adam ate the apple.
Eve ate Adam.
The serpent ate Eve.
This is the dark intestine.
Similarly, in Prometheus On His Crag we see disembowelment displayed graphically. "Gog," from the Celtic myth of Gog and Magog, uses many of the same horrific elements.
The question arises, where does one find transcendence if not in these religions? The fears that horror stories convey are always met with a counterpart that can defeat them. In the case of the Dionysian outbreaks that Hughes presents so vividly, there must be an Apollonian haven where they cannot enter, a safe place either of the mind ands soul or of the body. If Heaven won't do, Hughes must present us with one in some poems--or else the lesson will go to naught. Fear loses its meaning when there is no background to place it against.
Hughes ascribes transcendent, beautiful qualities to Nature itself in poem after poem. Animals particularly are presented as having the sort of innocence and strangth and beauty than mankind does not. It is paradoxical that Hughes must turn to animals as salvation when it is precisely the animalistic nature of man which he warns us from in so much of his work. Consider what he says in his essay "Capturing Animals," addressing a group of children:
In a way, I suppose, I think of poems as sort of an animal. They have their own life, like animals, by which I mean that they seem quite separate from any one person, even from their author, and nothing can be added to them or taken away without maiming and perhaps even killing them. And they have a certain wisdom. They know something special... something perhaps which we are very curious to learn.
Given this, it is hard to reconcile the raw sexuality that Hughes makes us so fearful of, the horrific nature of love as he presents it in poems like "Human Calf," with poems like "Wolfwatching" or "That Morning." Images of eating, of power, of sheer strength, even of the monster taking human form, become images of transcendence, and something not to be feared; indeed, not to be feared only because of the vision-like, nearly religious quality of the experience, for the literal events themselves should be enough to scare anyone:
Then for a sign that we were where we were
Two gold bears came down and swam like men
Beside us. And dived like children.
And stood in deep water as on a throne
Eating pierced salmon off their talons.
So we found the end of our journey.
So we stood, alive in the river of light
Among the creatures of light, creatures of light.
--from "That Morning"
Here Hughes is not writing horror. The same elements are metamorphosed into awe. Must the grotesque inevitably lead us to a totally depressing view of the world? Hirschberg sums it up this way: "Kirk makes the valuable point that these two kinds of psychological effects, ‘horror' and ‘fulfillment,' are not mutually exclusive, in fact, they often complement one another." Here they have done more than merely complement one another: they are one and the same thing. Fear may lead, like tragedy, to the catharsis Aristotle described. Just because Hughes seems fond of pointing out problems with his use of horrific elements, and rarely proposes solutions, we must not take it as a sign of bitterness, or merely a flaw in the approach. The use of nature as a saving grace, even if a frighteningly powerful one, seems to indicate a similar move to that made in traditional horror, where either science or religion is capable of destroying the incursion of the "unnatural." Here the unnatural and the natural are seen to be one and the same. Perhaps despite all the warnings that Hughes gives us about our animal side, despite all the horror stories he tells to push us towards an Apollonian existence, he sees the need for the Dionysian as well. If the unnatural which Hughes depicts for us so vividly includes all that the species needs for continuation, we must wonder about Hughes' implicit worldview, and how honestly it is depicted by the work that just happens to be, by virtue of its genre, the most memorable and shocking.
We must worship that which we fear and that which puts us in awe, Hughes implies. Although it is clear that life is full of terrible sights, ones which are taboo in the sense that they transgress most of our most cherished illusions, we must succumb to them in the end, and we may as well do it with eyes open and full cognizance of our fear. This is most clear in the poem "Notes for a Little Play," I think, where we see the survivors of a nuclear war surviving in a totally desolate and horrific land:
Horrors--hairy and slobbery, glossy and raw.
They sniff towards each other in the emptiness.
They fasten together. They seem to be eating each other.
They do not know what else to do.
They have begun to dance a strange dance.
And this is the marriage of these simple creatures--
Celebrated here, in the darkness of the sun,
Without guest or God.
--from "Notes for a Little Play"
It all comes together here. It is clear that the horrors are, as we knew all along, we ourselves. And that a marriage and an understanding is indeed possible, as long as we expect no aid from God or from others, for we must each face these fears that we are made of alone. We do not know what else to do, but what else can we do but worship what we fear, precisely because we fear it, precisely because it is of what we are made.
Fass, Ekbert. Ted Hughes: The Unaccomodated Universe. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1980.
Hirschberg, Stuart. Myth in the Poetry of Ted Hughes. Totowa, New Jersey: Barnes and Noble Books, 1981.
Hughes, Ted. New Selected Poems. New York: Harper and Row, 1982.
______. Poetry in the Making. London: Faber and Faber, 1967.
______. Wolfwatching. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991.
Gifford, Terry, and Neil Roberts. Ted Hughes: A Critical Study. London: Faber and Faber: 1981.
King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. New York: Berkley Books, 1982.
Sagar, Keith. The Art of Ted Hughes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975.
______. The Achievement of Ted Hughes. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1983.